“You can’t stop us,” Robinson-Oturu said.
From its inception in 1961 until its disbandment in 1995, the DC Youth Chorale (DCYC) took the best voices from the city’s public high schools and molded them into a 100-person choir. This meeting, sponsored by The Legacy of the DC Youth Choirwas an opportunity for alumni to reconnect, raise funds to support youth arts programs and sing along.
Robinson-Oturu first heard the choir when he was 11, and it performed at his church, Tabor Presbyterian, in the North West.
“I was just transfixed,” she said.
Robinson-Oturu yearned to belong one day. She gathered the courage to approach Edward Jacksonwho led the choir from 1966 to 1995, telling her that her voice was probably not as good as that of the soloists she had heard.
Jackson told him, “I don’t need a group of soloists. I need a group of workers.
Robinson-Oturu became a member in 1968. Several evenings a week, students from the district met to practice – first at Roosevelt High, then at other schools.
The approach Jackson used — he described it as “discipline, standards, excellence, success” — earned the DC Youth Chorale honors such as a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a department-sponsored tour of State in Romania, performances at universal exhibitions. in New York and Spokane, Washington, and appearances at the Kennedy Center and elsewhere in Washington. Among its members: mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
“It stretched my abilities,” said Ivan McDowell, graduated from McKinley in 1981. He was already playing trumpet, but the complexities of choral music were new to him. And if he had remained in the brass section, he might never have been confronted with the foreign languages with which the members of the choir had to become familiar: Latin, French, German. The band’s repertoire spans the globe.
The choir was founded by Frances White Hughes, music teacher at Anacostia, Roosevelt and Ballou high schools. The early 1960s was a time when gifted and talented curricula were beginning to catch on, Robinson-Oturu said, emphasizing academic subjects such as math and English.
“She thought the school system needed something for talented students in the arts,” Robinson-Oturu said. So Hughes created what was first called Young Scholars With Special Gifts.
“It was approachable. There were no charges,” Robinson-Oturu said.
Whatever your background – singing church music every Sunday or growing up in a home where music was rarely heard – you will learn. Eventually, there was a respite program from the town’s elementary school and middle school, led by Yvette Holt.
Attendees at Saturday’s meeting remembered and celebrated all the voice teachers and accompanists who had worked with them. Wilma Shakesnider was a direct link to Hughes. Although she graduated before the choir was established, Hughes taught her. Shakesnider went on to sing operas in Houston, Berlin and New York. She’s 80 now, she’s a little hesitant on her feet, but when she opened her mouth and that driven soprano voice emitted a passage from the opera ‘Hérodiade’ by Jules Massenetit gave goosebumps.
Hughes passed the reins to Jackson in 1966. The DC Youth Chorale folded in 1995. This was the year Edwards retired from the school system as a teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. No one could say exactly why. Maybe it was just the kind of program that needed just one strong advocate.
The legacy of the DC Youth Chorale reverberates through its members, most of whom continue to sing, many of whom teach. Some started their own groups, including the Washington Women’s Chorale and the Artists Group of Washington, both of which performed at the anniversary celebration.
Detra Battle Washington, a 1979 McKinley graduate, remembers how the choir taught members to blend their voices, to be their best. She teaches voice throughout the city, including at Howard University.
“When times get tough, music is where I go,” she said. “People who don’t have music, there’s a void in their lives.”